Abraham Fuerte speaks with confidence and evident pride as he describes the inner workings of a model wind turbine built by him and his classmates at Desert Hot Springs High School.

“We tried different lengths and weights of the blades, and different angles to get the most efficiency,” he said, gesturing to a three-foot-tall model perched on a tabletop in a classroom. “We also learned that you have to cover the front of the rotor with a cone to distribute the wind better to all of the blades.”

Fuerte is one of about 140 students participating in the school’s Renewable Energy Academy of Learning (REAL). Since its inception in 2007, REAL has been providing freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors at Desert Hot Springs High opportunities to develop skills and experiences that can open paths to careers in the fast-growing energy sector.

Edison International has been a financial supporter of REAL from the beginning. This year’s $10,000 grant continues a seven-year tradition of support. REAL’s mission aligns well with Edison International's philanthropy goals of supporting education, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, environmental awareness and underserved communities, said Nena McCullough, a region manager in Southern California Edison’s Local Public Affairs office in Palm Springs. 

“So many of the students here are from low-income families, and the opportunities for them around here after graduation can be pretty limited,” said McCullough. “REAL gives them a head start on the job market of the future, whether they want to go on to study engineering in college, or go right to work after high school in the power industry.”

McCullough recently accepted an award on behalf of SCE from the Palm Springs Unified School District, which includes Desert Hot Springs. The school district recognized SCE as Business Partner of the Year for its support of REAL.

REAL got its start in 2007 with the help of a $30,000 grant from Edison International to the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, which directed the grant to Desert Hot Springs High to start a training program for the energy industry, said Diana LaMar, director of Linked Learning at Palm Springs Unified School District, who wrote the original grant proposals. That grant was matched by state funds, she said.

“This was all very cutting edge at the time. We had no programs like it to model on,” said LaMar. “Eventually we were able to combine elements of robotics with wind energy and solar technology, both of which are big out here in the Coachella Valley.”

LaMar noted that the students in the REAL program have higher graduation rates and higher rates of college attendance than is typical for Desert Hot Springs High.

“The students in the academy take all their math, science and English classes together, along with the REAL classes,” said Damon Bonelli, a school counselor who works with REAL students. “That helps build a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.”

The REAL students at Desert Hot Springs High also have built a solar-powered motorized canoe, which they will enter in a competition later this school year. In addition to solar panels laid across the front half of the boat, the craft has a small battery to store the electricity from the panels and feed it into an electric motor, REAL student Joseph Facer said.

“The smallest, lightest kid in our program gets to sit in the boat and steer it,” Facer said, with a wry smile. “It’s a pretty tight fit in there.”

Outside on the school grounds, the REAL students also have built a small wooden shed with solar panels on the roof. “We learned a lot of hard lessons about construction,” said REAL student Jesus Cobos. “But it was a great experience. We learned how to be a team.”

“And we learned all about safety,” added classmate Irene Villareal. “Safety is the most important thing.”